How Evolution Made Humans the Best Long-Distance Runners on Earth

October 29, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Runners competing in a marathon
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When it comes to long distance, the human body was evolved to outrun all other animals.  

Scientists have long speculated that one of the driving forces behind the evolution of ape to man was man’s need to run long distances. Whether it was to hunt or to scavenge Africa’s vast savannah for dead animals, the ability to run shaped our anatomy into how we look today.

In one of the first studies on this concept, published in Nature by University of Utah biologist Dennis Bramble and Harvard University anthropologist Daniel Lieberman, the two researchers argue that natural selection favored the survival of ape-like human ancestors who could run. Over time, anatomical features developed to make long-distance running possible.

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In the press release, Bramble said, “Running has substantially shaped human evolution. Running made us human - at least in an anatomical sense. We think running is one of the most transforming events in human history. We are arguing the emergence of humans is tied to the evolution of running.”

So, are we born to run? Christopher McDougall, a reporter and longtime runner who wrote the book “Born to Run” seems to think so. He delivered a TED Talk on his exploration into the world of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, a tribe known for running remarkable distances in nothing but sandals. Amazingly, the tribesmen have been living unchanged for the past 400 years, but that’s not even the most impressive aspect of the community.

McDougall explains that tribesmen in their 70s and 80s aren’t just running marathons— they’re running mega-marathons of 150 miles at a time, sustaining no injuries. He says if you describe the life-threatening conditions of heart disease, cancer, etc. the tribesmen don’t even know what you’re talking about. By living in their bubble and upholding the ancient practices of running, they’ve kept themselves free of modern ailments.

In the developed world, many people view running as a dreadful activity and avoid it whenever possible. However, there are so many anatomical features that are unique to humans and play a role in our ability to run.

First off, we cool by sweating instead of panting, which allows us to cool ourselves during certain situations where other animals would overheat. Certain skull features are what drives this ability. The sweat evaporates from the scalp, face, and forehead, and this evaporation cools blood draining from the head. Then, veins carry the blood near the carotid arteries so the cooled blood can flow to the brain.

There are a number of other features of human anatomy that drive the ability to run long distances, like long legs and the arrangement of the bones in the foot. Most mammals can sprint faster than humans because having four legs gives a definite speed advantage over having just two. But when it comes to long-distance running, humans can outrun any animal.

If we’re adapted to run so well, you might be asking yourself why do humans sustain so many running injuries? In an interview with the New York Times, McDougall explains that it’s only recently that running has been associated with pain and injury. He assumes this has a lot to do with the fact that we live in a commercialized world. We see ads for awesome-looking running shoes with new features that allegedly help our skills on foot, but in reality, we weren’t evolved to need fancy running shoes. McDougall says after correcting his form and throwing out his thickly cushioned shoes, he has avoided any type of running injury for three years straight.

While long distance running has lost its normalcy through the evolution of society, it’s fascinating to think about the capabilities of the human body.

Watch McDougall’s captivating TED Talk below:




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